Names to remember
Will Hayler looks beyond the star names for potential dark horses which may represent Nicky Henderson at Cheltenham.
By Will Hayler. Last Updated: 21/02/13 11:25am
Utopie Des Bordes (left): Albert Bartlett contender?
Ever the diplomat, Nicky Henderson was good enough to pretend on Monday that even having one winner at the Cheltenham Festival would be a good achievement, despite the fact that he rattled off seven winners at the meeting last year.
"One is the main aim, but I like to be greedy and two would be even better - anything more than that would be brilliant," he insisted. "Not getting none is the most important thing."
The truth is that although Henderson was reluctant to take any of the bait dangled in front of him and accept suggestions that his team for this year's Festival might be his strongest ever, or that the likes of Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre could be the best horses he has ever trained, it's hard to believe his squad - perhaps save for the ill-fated Darlan - could have room for many more aces.
Having suggested that he might have a total of 35-40 horses lined up for the meeting, he went on minutes later to say that he had entered 13 for the Martin Pipe Hurdle, all of whom based on the handicap ratings of horses which have got a run in previous seasons, might make the final cut.
I'd suggest that even with the odd unforeseeable setback along the way over the next four weeks, Henderson might nearly have had 35 runners by the end of the second day, let alone over the course of the meeting.
Anyone looking for chinks in the armour of Sprinter Sacre of Simonsig, both forecast to go off as odds-on favourites for their respective targets next month, wouldn't have found any. Henderson was positively bullish about their prospects, while he also had a particularly good word for Captain Conan in the Jewson Chase.
But here are three of the Seven Barrows squadron who might have slipped under your radar - until now!
Utopie Des Bordes
A winner from the hotly-touted Fago when trained in France, this mare was bought privately for a good few quid subsequently but has run only over hurdles since joining Henderson's team.
Cosy without having much to beat when winning at Doncaster at the start of the month, Utopie Des Bordes was probably a shade fortunate to maintain her unbeaten record for new yard when beating She Ranks Me at Sandown last week - the Willie Mullins-trained Twigline would have gone close but for falling at the final flight.
However She Ranks Me is a pretty smart performer and this mare seemed to need every yard of the two-and-a-half-mile trip having been clearly outpaced when the pace quickened around the home turn.
Moving up to three miles in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle may well suit her even more and Henderson was very positive about her prospects, saying: "I thought she had rather a good chance but when I looked at some of the bookmakers' lists, they didn't seem to agree."
Much quicker ground might prove a concern, but in a contest where barely half-a-dozen horses have so far been confirmed as intended starters she could well take a hand at a tasty price.
If only they could talk. Poor Kid Cassidy can't tell us if he still thinks about the horrific experience he endured on 'that day' at Newbury, but his trainer believes he still carries the scars.
Nor has the handicapper entirely been convinced by two superficially disappointing runs this season, having eased his mark just 1lb apiece for those defeats.
Such a decision is entirely understandable with regards to his first run at Aintree in October, where despite the presence of a net muzzle and earplugs to remind us all of his quirks, it was still hard not to reach the conclusion that the waiting tactics had been somewhat overdone. However the excuses were less obviously evident at Cheltenham subsequently where he appeared to have every chance without proving good enough.
Furthermore, he was soundly beaten in the Grand Annual Chase 12 months ago, hardly looking like he might be a future winner of the race as he trailled home 35 lengths behind stablemate Bellvano. Cheltenham simply might not be his course.
But for some strange reason I still have a feeling that one day he is going to pop up in this kind of contest (he's by no means a dis-similar type of horse to Bellvano) and it was interesting to hear Henderson mention him as having worked on Saturday with a genuinely elite bunch of stablemates.
He won't be 4/1 favourite again this year. Can you give him one more chance?
A dramatic improver for Mark Johnston at the end of last season who was rated 86 when second at Newmarket on his final start last September, he is still to make his first start over hurdles for his new yard but the trainer has been patiently been waiting for some better ground and he is set to end the waiting at Kempton this weekend in the Adonis Hurdle.
A big run could see him thrown into the mix for the Triumph Hurdle and Henderson talks favourably as to how the four-year-old's schooling has gone so far.
Stablemate Vasco Du Ronceray is also due to line up in the Adonis and could also rebuild his reputation in time to emerge as a Triumph contender.